More than ever, U.S. retirees are setting their sights — and hard-earned cash — on starting new lives in other countries.
There were 401,014 retired Americans living abroad as of December 2016, according to the Social Security Administration. And the number of Americans retiring outside the U.S. increased by 17 percent from 2010 to 2015, according to The Associated Press. Those numbers are expected to go up over the next 10 years.
The most popular destinations are in Central and South America, where retirees can stretch their dollars. International Living magazine, the authority on global retirement, recently announced its World’s Best Places to Retire in 2018. It includes Costa Rica at the top of the list, along with Mexico, Panama, Ecuador, Nicaragua, Colombia and Peru. Thailand, Portugal, Spain and Malaysia are also noted.
The most common reason for retiring abroad is the lower cost of living.
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Jose L. Monteagudo, 66, a Fort Lauderdale resident and Village of Key Biscayne law enforcement veteran, will retire this year to a sprawling home overlooking the Pacific Ocean on a half-acre of land in Costa Rica.
He purchased the property in 1999 for $45,000. The original house was tiny with a tin roof. Over the course of several years, he built the home of his dreams for a total of about $350,000, complete with an innkeeper’s house, three-car garage, pool and tiki bar.
In the U.S., a house like that one could cost millions.
“I visited with a friend and fell in love with Costa Rica,” Monteagudo said. “I could not own such a house on the Pacific Ocean in the U.S.”
Costa Rica is popular among visitors and retirees. It recently landed the 13th spot on the 2018 World Happiness Report, which ranked 156 countries by happiness levels based on life expectancy, social support and corruption, among other factors.
Others choose to retire abroad to experience a different way of living.
Cathy Pareto, founder and president of Cathy Pareto and Associates in Coral Gables, a financial planning firm, is working with clients who are planning to retire in Mexico. They can afford to live anywhere, she said, but their main reason for moving is to enjoy a more peaceful life.
“Miami is a rat race,” Pareto said. “It’s growing increasingly difficult to have some semblance of balance. The more digital we become, the less we have quiet space. For them, it’s about having a slower pace of life.”
According to U.S. News & World Report, Mexico is home to more American expats and retirees than any other country. The U.S. State Department estimates that a million American citizens live in Mexico. In 2017, Mexico topped the list of International Living’s rankings of the best places for U.S. citizens to retire.
It’s not all white-sand beaches and umbrella drinks. Living abroad requires a substantial amount of research and planning.
“No matter where you’re retiring to, you need to have a budget and a plan,” Pareto said. “Retiring abroad opens up a different array of challenges.”
She recommends taking several trips first and studying the culture and way of daily life, especially learning about local taxes, cost of housing and healthcare. Medicare and most Medicare Gap insurance does not cover retirees overseas.
A good place to begin gathering information is the U.S. Department of State page on international travel, which offers visa and residency requirements by country and other basic information. There are also Facebook groups created by expats living abroad that can offer a realistic glimpse.
The transition is a bit easier for those who speak the language and have roots in their new home country.
Orfilia Montalvan, who turns 70 this year, lives in a tranquil four-bedroom oasis with a big kitchen and backyard with about a dozen fruit trees in Granada, Nicaragua. She bought the property 10 years ago for $5,000 and built the house for $27,000.
Nicaragua has been lauded among the safest countries in Central and South America, and International Living magazine called it the “Best bang-for-your-buck in Latin America.”
According to Expatisan.com, which runs one of the biggest cost-of-living databases in the world, the cost for a dozen eggs is 64 Nicaraguan cordobas, or about $2. The average cost for a 900-square-foot furnished home is 13,600 cordobas, or $442 in monthly rent.
Montalvan retired and moved back to her native Nicaragua five years ago, after more than 35 years cleaning houses in Miami. She flies back to Miami often to visit her family and see her doctors for diabetes.
She hoped her four grown children, most of whom were born in Miami, would join her in Nicaragua, but they don’t want to give up the comforts of living in the U.S.
“She’s well off there, but we want to live here,” said daughter Marisela Dominguez,” At the end of the day, it’s a third world country.”
While it’s not ideal for her, Dominguez says Granada is peaceful and beautiful, and she can see why her mother likes it there.
“The food we call organic here is just food in Nicaragua,” said Dominguez, who spent four months with her mother last year. “When I eat an egg in Nicaragua it’s more orange than yellow. The meat is fresh. Everything is very delicious.”